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My Year in Job Search November 8, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search.
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I was laid off a little over a year ago, and I’ve spent part of every day since then looking for a job. In the last year I’ve had 1-on-1 meetings with over 150 people at coffee shops all over northern Colorado. Some of these folks I knew already, but most of them were people I found on LinkedIn or through referrals. Some people I’ve met just by walking up and saying hello. I’ve attended almost 100 networking events, including local chapter meetings of national professional organizations and job search workgroups. I’ve applied to at least five jobs every week. I’ve had 23 phone screenings, 6 on-site interviews, and zero job offers.

I think I’ve done everything that the job search experts say you’re supposed to do, although I’m always open to new suggestions. I’ve got a list of over 20 target companies in the area, and I’ve got good connections at all of them. I received outplacement services, and at this point I’m sure I could teach others how to look for a job. I’ve been posting regularly to my blog on WordPress, and I’ve been participating in on-line discussions on LinkedIn, and I opened a site on ScoopIt to highlight news items from my field of expertise, all intended to establish and maintain professional credibility. I started a personal web site to provide some details about my work accomplishments and methods. I’ve given talks at professional meetings, and I was a guest lecturer at the local university before becoming an adjunct professor, teaching project management, strategic planning, and supply chain management.

I joined a volunteer committee to help new job seekers get started with LinkedIn. I was asked to write five chapters for the ninth edition of a technical handbook that will be published next year. I’ve been a guest blogger for two other sites. I’m working with a former colleague to record podcast interviews with authors and industry leaders in reliability and quality. I spent a year studying Spanish, and now I’m working on Mandarin Chinese.

While my focus has been on finding a full-time job, I’ve let everyone know that I’m also open to temporary contract positions and consulting. I’m willing to commute long distances, and I would consider relocation. Despite my considerable experience and training, I’ve lowered my salary expectations. I’ve been told that I’m over-qualified. No one has told me that I’m too old, but I worry about age discrimination. I worry about the stigma that goes with long-term unemployment: the longer this goes on, the more likely hiring managers will assume that there’s something really wrong with me.

I’ve been told that my resume is the problem, and I tweak it regularly. I send cover letters and follow-up with my connections (almost 1500 people on LinkedIn). I’ve sent Pain Letters to help companies imagine how I could help them solve their problems. I’ve been told that the red background on my photo in LinkedIn is the problem. I’ve gotten a lot of conflicting advice from folks who mean well. I’ve just about run out of ideas, and I’m not sure if doing the same things over and over again will lead to a different result.

I keep plugging away, but I’m beginning to wonder whether corporate America has a place for me. I’m busy and optimistic most days, and I try not to let myself be defined by my unemployed status. We’ll see what happens next.

What Will You Do With the Time You Save? May 7, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, strategy.
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When laptops and cell phones and remote access first emerged as an option for office workers a lot of folks tried to justify the incremental expense by arguing that they would be so much more productive as a mobile worker, no longer tied to a specific cubicle. Some even tried to calculate an ROI based on quantitative estimates of labor cost savings or higher efficiency. The arguments all seemed to be based on the idea that we would be able to get so much more done by feeing ourselves from the constraints of a physical office. I suppose we really are getting more done. Mobile technology has become the standard for the majority of knowledge workers and we don’t think twice about the cost of the hardware or worry much about the security of remote access.

Lately I’ve been reminded of those claims of the higher productivity of mobile workers because of the current interest in lean production and business process improvement. One of the reasons that some people cite for resistance to these kinds of changes is the fear that it will lead to layoffs because fewer people will be needed to manage the new processes. We hate being overworked, but apparently some believe that it comes with job security.

First of all, there’s no job security at a company that’s rife with waste and inefficiency. Unless you’re a legal monopoly, competitors will figure out how to operate more efficiently and eventually your higher expenses will make you un-competitive and unprofitable.

Second, why does it have to be a choice between inefficiency and layoffs? Why would anyone assume that higher productivity automatically guarantees workforce reductions?

I’m not naive, I know this does happen. If you have five buyers in your purchasing department and you figure out how to get the same work done with four people, then you have one more person than you need. But, that’s a narrow way of looking at the issue. You have one more person than you need for that job, but you also have one more person that can be assigned to a different job. In many cases there’s some other part of the organization that’s starved for resources (assuming the skills are transferable), or a project or strategic initiative that hasn’t been able to get off the ground (including further process improvements).

If you save money as a result of process improvement, you can choose to put that money in your pocket, or you can invest it elsewhere. Yes, you can reduce expenses by cutting headcount, but did you consider using those resources to help increase revenue, or accelerate time-to-market, or improve quality?

Certainly you shouldn’t expect much support for changes that lead to higher productivity if it’s understood that there will be layoffs as a result. I don’t remember big layoffs when we implemented mobile technology. We found more work to do.

 

How Important Is Industry Familiarity? April 17, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Organizational dynamics, strategy.
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I’m once again “between jobs” and “in-transition,” and I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at job postings. Every position seems to emphasize the preference or requirement for applicants with industry experience. It’s easy to imagine that many applicants are immediately eliminated from consideration without it.

I understand why familiarity with an industry is valued in a candidate. Different industries are characterized by different combinations of suppliers, internal value delivery systems, channels, competitors, and customers. People who work in the industry understand the relationships between these elements, and that understanding is an important consideration when setting priorities and making decisions. It takes time to learn that in a new job, and people who already have the experience don’t need to go through a learning curve and theoretically can make a more-immediate impact.

Industry familiarity doesn’t seem to be something you can acquire through independent study and observation; you have to actually work in the industry. This means that your preferred candidates are likely going to be people who have worked at your competitors, or possibly your suppliers, channels, or customers, depending on how broadly you define your industry.

This leads to a question I’ve been puzzling over: what are the unique characteristics of an industry that are true differentiators? What really distinguishes one industry from another, and what is the significance of those differences when considering job applicants?

In my career I’ve worked at a defense contractor, several OEMs in the consumer electronics industry, a supplier to the semiconductor manufacturing industry, and most-recently a supplier to the power generation and utilities industries. Different customers, different sales channels, different production volumes, and different quality expectations and regulatory environments. Some of the suppliers were the same, but most were different. Some produced internally, and some outsourced. Some of these companies competed on cost, some on technology. My modest assessment is that I’ve been successful in all of these industries.

Industry experience provides familiarity, but is industry experience an accurate predictor of success in a new job? What skills are really needed to succeed, and how transferable are a person’s skills from one industry to another? Could a unique perspective derived from a diversity of experiences be more valuable than industry familiarity? These are the questions that should be considered when writing a job posting and evaluating applicants.

 

What Are Individual Accomplishments Within a Team Environment? April 7, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Project management.
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The other day I responded to a question on LinkedIn about whether performance reviews were basically worthless because we all work in teams and individual accomplishments are hard to isolate. It’s true that very few jobs require us to work entirely independently, and our success does depend in large part on the performance of others. But, does that really mean that individual performance can’t be evaluated at all?

If I assign a specific task or improvement project to someone, I should be able to determine whether the project was completed, although there may be qualifiers about schedule (completed on-time?), cost (within budget?), and quality (all elements completed according to requirements?). However, regardless of whether the task was completed or not, or if the results weren’t entirely satisfactory, how much of that outcome can be attributed to the actions of a single person? If they weren’t successful, how much of that failure was due to circumstances that were within or beyond their control? If they were successful, how much of the credit can they rightfully claim?

I believe we can evaluate individual performance, but we have to consider more than just whether tasks were completed or if improvement occurred, and that requires a closer look. We have to assess what got done, how it got done, and the influence of each person who was involved. Here are some of the considerations that should guide individual performance reviews:

1. Degree of difficulty. Some assignments are obviously more challenging with a higher likelihood of failure. Olympic athletes get higher scores when they attempt more-difficult routines, and we should credit those who have more difficult assignments, especially when they volunteer for those challenges.

2. Overcoming obstacles and mitigating risks. That being said, simply accepting a challenging assignment is enough. We should look for evidence of assessing risks, taking proactive steps to minimize those risks, and making progress despite obstacles. I want to know what each person did to avoid trouble, and what they did when it happened anyway.

3. Original thinking and creative problem solving. Innovation isn’t just something we look for in product design. We should encourage and reward people who apply reasoning skills based on their training and experience.

4. Leadership and influence. Again, this gets to the “how.” Because the work requires teams and other functions and external partners and possibly customers, I want to know how each person interacted with others, and how they obtained their cooperation. Generally, how did they use the resources available to them?

5. Adaptability. Things change, and they can change quickly. Did this person adapt and adjust their plans, or perhaps even anticipate the change?

This is harder for managers when writing performance reviews, but not impossible. It requires that we monitor the work as it’s being done instead of evaluating it after it’s completed, and recognizing the behaviors that we value in the organization.

Hiring, Firing and Net Value February 24, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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In one of my recent positions my manager suggested that I “get rid of” an person in my team who wasn’t meeting expectations, at least in the opinion of my manager. I assumed he meant that I should fire them. I didn’t think that was a good idea, for several reasons. I felt that this person was being asked to do something that was a little outside their job description, and something that was also outside their natural comfort zone of skills and talents. Instead of continuing to force a square peg into a round hole, I re-assigned some responsibilities within the team so that this person could focus on what they did best.

Sure, I could have fired this person, but I prefer to look at these situations from a net value perspective. This person was making a positive contribution to the business. If I fired them, that contribution would be lost, at least until I replaced them with a new hire or transfer. Hiring requires recruiting and interviewing candidates, and then the new person typically goes through a learning curve. It could be months before the business realized a net gain to offset the switching costs, and even then the hiring process does not guarantee a better outcome.

The other consideration was how much of my time every day was spent managing this person, or compensating for their sub-standard performance. It’s certainly possible that what looks like a positive contribution to the business by one person is actually a net drain because of their impact on management and others, including the lost opportunity to spend your time in more productive ways.

In this case I was able to find a lower-cost way to increase this person’s long-term net value without incurring the switching costs. I’m not sure my manager agreed with my logic. I understand that sometimes you do have to “get rid of” someone who is under-performing, but that should be a carefully considered decision, not an emotional reaction to a situation that may not really that bad.

I see the same issues on the hiring side. Let’s assume that all job openings were justified to fill an urgent need for the business (although that’s apparently not always true). As long as that position remains unfilled, the business is suffering to some degree, otherwise why would the position be created in the first place? Of course the hiring manager should be trying to find the best person to fill the position, but the time it takes to find and on-board that person has to be balanced against the cost of not having any person in that position. Can the business afford to keep looking for a better candidate?

Of course this isn’t necessary a bad thing. As time goes by without hiring someone, the business will compensate and adjust for the missing resource, and it’s possible that may ultimately be a net gain. Or, not.

 

Focus on Projects, Not Jobs January 24, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Organizational dynamics, Project management.
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I’ve been doing a lot of professional networking these last few months, particularly since my most-recent transition from the corporate world. I’ve met a lot of new people, and re-connected with many former colleagues. Everyone wants to know how the job search is going, and what I’m looking for in my next job. The more I think about those questions, the more I wonder whether I’m really looking for a “job.”

Yes, I do want to be compensated for my work, and I prefer having some degree of stability and continuity in my work life, and (like most folks, I suspect) I have associated those things with a full-time position that doesn’t have a pre-determined end date. In other words, a job.

Lately, however, I’m starting to believe that there’s really no such thing as job security, at least in the traditional sense of staying with a single employer for an extended period of time. At-will employment seems to be the norm these days as companies emphasize staffing flexibility over long-term commitments. Those who have been laid off complain that there’s no loyalty any more, but I think that cuts both ways. More employees seem to be accepting this new reality, and getting laid off doesn’t have the same stigma that it did before.

If there’s little assurance of a long-term relationship with a single employer, any security is derived from the varying market demand for your skills and experiences. A career is a series of jobs, or maybe even just a series of projects. The company has a need, you’re hired because you’re the right fit for that need, you work until the company doesn’t have that need any more, and then you’re available for the next opportunity (which might be at the same company, but more likely, not). If your skills and experiences are in-demand, you won’t have to spend much time “in transition,” although you may have to be willing to relocate.

Look, everyone is different and has different needs. I enjoy learning new things, and I like the feeling of accomplishment that comes from solving problems that need solving. I just need to learn how to be better at the transitions.

Getting Off to a Good Start January 13, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, Process engineering, Project management.
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The transition to a new company can be disorienting. The HR folks always have a lot of forms to fill out, and it can take a while to figure out the e-mail and other IT systems. The work processes may seem familiar, but the terminology and acronyms may be very different. “It doesn’t work that way here,” is something you’re likely to hear a lot. Meanwhile, there are meetings to attend, active projects that need to be managed, and crises that require immediate attention.

There’s a honeymoon period when expectations are low, but that doesn’t last. At some point you’re expected to make a significant contribution and thereby justify the decision to hire you instead of someone else, or filling the position from within. This can be a time of paranoia and overcompensation. After all, for the first several months the company has little investment — financial or emotional — in your employment. It’s not that hard to let you go if it’s “not working out,” or if you’re “not fitting in.”

That may be true, it may not work out, but there are things you can do to get off to a good start. You need some early results that build confidence (including self-confidence) in your skills and methods.

1. The first thing to do is to quickly accomplish a task that you’ve been assigned. It almost doesn’t matter what the task is, the objective is to get others to see you as a person who meet their commitments, and gets things done on-time without being reminded. Of course it’s even better if the task has strategic priority, but as a people manager I’ve found that it’s easier to re-focus someone than it is to build a fire under them.

2. The second thing you need to do is to eliminate a problem. What you’re demonstrating here is the ability to take responsibility, get to the root of the issue, and deliver results. This is also your opportunity to apply the skills and experience that got you the job in the first place. This may be something that was assigned to you by your manager, or it may be something you’ve found on your own, but either way it’s important for people to recognize that you’ve made something better as a direct result of your actions.

3. While working on your problem, you need to build relationships within the organization. These are your sources of information, your partners in getting things done, and ultimately the people who will confirm your reputation and your value. They will also teach you how the organization really works and how to get things done.

4. Finally, you need to find out what success in this job looks like. You may think you know, based on the job description, but that has to be verified with your manager. Pay special attention to deliverables: it’s not just what needs to be done, but when those results are expected. Quantitative and objective measures are better. This is also a good time to schedule an early review to confirm that you’re on the right track.

You got the job, so you have some credibility. However, you can reduce your paranoia and focus on the job by establishing your reputation and delivering quick results. After that, start on your 30-60-90 Day Plans.

The Skills (Most) Engineers Don’t Learn in College January 9, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Quality.
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My friend and former colleague Happy Holden recently sent me his list of 25 “soft skills” that engineers don’t learn in college, but that every engineering manager needs to acquire to succeed. Engineers may graduate with a deep understanding of their selected discipline, however their future career path will depend on whether they acquire other critical skills on-the-job. Those that don’t may continue to be useful engineers when they’re given specific assignments, but they will require closer management (which will add cost to their organization), their contribution to business goals will be narrow, and their value will be limited, whether or not they become a manager.

Happy has 25 skills in his list, but I’ve chosen the following 10 as my favorites, in no particular order:

  1. Statistics, specifically inferential statistics. I’ve always been surprised at how few engineers understand the concepts of sample size and significance testing. Too many are willing to accept a single test result as proof.
  2. Problem solving. I’m talking about a systematic approach to problem solving, one that evaluates the current situation and considers more than one possible root cause and solution. In the end, your first instinct may still be the right one, but you should at least evaluate other possibilities.
  3. Technical writing. This is a bit of a lost skill with today’s greater emphasis on verbal communication, texting, and PowerPoint. However, regardless of the medium, understanding and decision making requires clear expression of technical concepts, especially to people who don’t have the same technical background that you do.
  4. Design for manufacturing. Here I’m talking to design engineers who may have a limited understanding of the capabilities of their supply chain, which includes manufacturing processes, variability, and tolerance stack-ups. The best design isn’t very useful until it can be built in the real world.
  5. Managing management time. OK, this is a little subtle. Your manager is busy juggling multiple issues. Exercise good judgment about taking their time, and focus your questions and reports. Even better, learn more about their strategic priorities and working environment, and anticipate what will be important to them.
  6. Project/program management. Obviously this is a required skill for engineers who aspire to become project managers, but all engineers who understand stakeholders, schedule, dependencies, resources, and risks will be able to work more independently, and effectively.
  7. Benchmarking. I’ve always been a fan of benchmarking as a way of identifying new ideas and accelerating their adoption. The part that often gets lost is how the results were achieved, not just the results themselves. Engineers should learn to appreciate and analyze different ways to build a mousetrap.
  8. Engineering economics. The “best” ideas and designs may not be adopted due to financial considerations such as return-on-investment and break-even time. If you can contribute to an evaluation of economic trade-offs, you’re more valuable to the process of decision-making.
  9. Recruiting and interviewing. At some point the organization is going to do some hiring. Those who can participate effectively in the process will have a significant influence on the future of the organization.
  10. Predictive engineering. It’s possible that this is actually taught somewhere, but it tends to be very specific to a product or industry. Building prototypes can be time consuming and expensive. It’s good to be able to assess performance and reliability without having to wait.
My number 11 would be lean manufacturing / JIT / TOC, although that’s a personal favorite that may be less important as firms use more contract manufacturing.

2013 Year in Review: Lessons Learned December 17, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search.
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Another year is coming to an end, and it’s a natural time to reflect on the events of the last twelve months. Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned, or re-learned, in 2013.

  • I started the year “in transition,” but interviewed for several positions in January and February, ultimately landing a job as the director of quality for a mid-sized company in northern Colorado. The preparation and the interviews themselves provided a great opportunity to re-assess my skills and experiences and test whether those really have value in the marketplace. Ironically, despite all the time I put into local networking in southern California and building connections at my target companies, I got the job in Colorado after submitting an on-line application with no insider help. What I learned: staying patient during job search, and trusting that there really is a good fit out there somewhere.
  • The new job started in March and I commuted from my home in San Diego until relocating to Colorado in June. I re-read a couple of my previous blog posts for advice (See: 30-60-90 Day Plans and  Managing Remote Teams), and generally spent my time learning about the people, processes, and products at the company. My team was spread over multiple sites and I made several trips to introduce myself and align expectations. Managing the relocation was a significant distraction during that period, but I received very positive feedback about my ability to quickly establish credibility and make an immediate impact. What I learned: making strong first impressions and achieving early results are critical during the first weeks in a new job. That’s a topic for my next post in 2014. 
  • In June I moved to Colorado, returning after exactly 20 years. Work kept me extremely busy, but I made it a priority to personally re-connect with former colleagues who I’d kept up with over the years. I also started the process of establishing a local network by attending meetings of networking groups and professional chapters throughout the area. I didn’t know it at the time, but those connections gave me a head start when I re-joined the ranks of the unemployed later in the year. What I learned: it may be hard, but it’s important to maintain professional relationships and continue networking while employed.
  • From July through November I focused on the job, consolidating and building on the early successes, and expanding my influence in the organization. It was an exciting time for our growing business, with a game-changing new product coming to market and a significant international acquisition. That all came to a sudden and unexpected end after a corporate reorganization left me without a chair. What I learned: there’s no such thing as job security; the security comes from your network, your relationships, and your skills and talents.
  • For the last several weeks I’ve been reviewing my job search strategies and evaluating new ones. I’ve returned to blogging after a lull during the summer and fall. I’m working on a personal web site (scheduled to go live in January) to present some of my methodologies and accomplishments, and I’m considering other channels to help promote my personal brand. I’m once again looking for consulting and teaching opportunities to stay active. I’m meeting some great people and sharing my lessons about networking and social media. I’ve decided to focus on learning one language for a year instead of playing around with several languages at the same time. What I learned: keep learning, keep growing, stay active.

It’s been an emotional roller coaster, but never boring. I have no idea where this is going next, and I can’t wait to get there.

Higher Value for Higher Priced Employees November 22, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Product design, strategy, Supply chain.
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You can complain about it, but offshoring is not going away. Businesses will always look to reduce cost, and wherever there’s a significant difference in labor cost, that difference is going to attract interest. I’ve spent almost my entire career working at companies that have moved their supply chain and production factories to locations that have lower labor cost. For manufactured goods this savings must be weighed against other expenses to determine whether there’s a net gain, such as shipping costs and finished goods in-transit. For knowledge work where there’s virtually zero cost to instantly move the output from one part of the world to another (such as software), the advantage is even greater.

You can complain about it, but if you want to justify a higher cost of labor in one part of the world, you have to demonstrate that this labor provides higher value. The added cost must be offset by some benefit, ideally something that can be quantified. It’s important to distinguish between sources of higher value that are fundamental and relatively stable vs. those that can be eroded over time.

Here are some examples:

1. “We know how to do it here, they don’t know how to do it there.” Your design team, and factory, and supply base may be well-established in one location, but you’re wrong if you think that can’t be replicated somewhere else. There are smart, well-educated people all over the world, and it’s easier than ever to access their skills, especially for knowledge work. There will be training, start-up, and switching costs, and those will have to be evaluated against the steady-state labor cost savings, but it’s not impossible.

2. Cost of quality. This is related to #1 above. You may be able to produce output at a different location with lower labor cost, but does the quality of that output lead to additional expenses later, such as rework, field repair, and loss of customer loyalty? These can be addressed with specific improvement plans, depending on the causes of poor quality, and are not necessarily permanent conditions. As above, the costs to improve or maintain quality at any location should be compared with the labor savings.

3. Geography. This is an example of a more fundamental difference that may justify higher labor cost. Many businesses benefit from close physical proximity to their customers, enabling them to respond quickly to changes in market demand and mix without the burden of a long finished goods pipeline from their production sites. A hybrid approach is late-point differentiation where platforms are built ahead at low cost and later customized depending on the specific order. Another benefit of geography is co-design, where frequent, real-time interaction with customers leads to a better fit to their requirements. Some companies will overcome this one by using available technology to communicate with remote teams, or performing rapid prototyping locally to verify the design before shifting volume production elsewhere.

Note that geography can also be an overriding factor when there are political or economic barriers, such as regulatory or “local content” requirements.

My point is that if you insist on doing the work in a location with higher labor cost, you can’t assume that the corresponding value will always be worth the higher cost. Your survival as a business depends on your ability to identify, develop, exploit, and maintain a source of competitive advantage. Your choices about labor cost and geographic location should support your strategy to maintain competitive advantage, and that strategy should be regularly reviewed and updated to make sure you’re getting the value your paying for.

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